Digital transformation has become a nirvana for cash-strapped local councils. The problem is just defining, designing and delivering it.
A recent local newspaper article reported that more than £800,000 has been committed to transforming the digital infrastructure of two councils. It went on to ask: will this investment reap returns for taxpayers?
The same question could be asked of councils up and down the country. But ‘digital’ means different things to different organisations. While some local authorities are looking to adopt extensive change programmes, the less-ambitious but necessary reality for most is a desire to shift high volume transactions to more cost-effective channels.
Kable found that the top services local authorities are prioritising for channel shift over the next 12–24 months are environmental services (such as reporting fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour), waste, council and democracy, leisure and culture.
Lots of local authorities trying to understand the benefits of channel shift are conducting audits looking at their cost per transaction. However, differences in salaries and service scope and complexity mean the cost per transaction for one council for a particular service is likely to differ from that of another.
Despite these differences, recent analysis by Kable of these audits has shown that the average cost of face-to-face contact, £10.16, is more than three times more expensive than telephone contact, with both channels significantly most expensive than carrying out an online transaction, which costs just 20 pence.
The figures make a strong argument for councils to move to create self-service channels for citizens, many of whom now expect 24x7 access to council services, just as they expect it from utilities. If your kids’ library books are overdue, you expect to be able to renew them online.
Yet despite these apparently compelling reasons for change, digital transformation remains difficult to achieve, with several blockers getting in the way of progress.
The first is no surprise: funding. Despite its promise, digital transformation carries an element of experimentation. Finding the money to innovate can be hard, despite the potential financial rewards for success. Councils must be able to free up money and have the will to invest in digital services.
Some certainly appear to have it. Birmingham City Council, for example, recently issued a pre-tender for a soft market exercise for the provision of a secure online customer portal to authenticate citizens in order to access public services such as benefit applications.
A further blocker is the human factor. Council leaders must ensure both employees and citizens support initiatives. Senior leaders should own, run and drive process change, not delegate it. If you simply delegate channel shift to the customer service, IT or Web teams, you’ll probably get an overly technical view of transformation rather than necessary organisation change.
For digital transformation to be effective, not only must leaders be able to drive the process, but the rest of the organisation also needs to be behind the initiative. Effective digital transformation is more likely when there are digital champions throughout the organisation to drive the process. Service line managers -in social care, housing, and transport, for example -need to define the process, and champion it within their lines of business and with the service users that they engage with.
Two other hurdles also have to be considered: legacy and the lack of co-ordination across government. Local government typically purchases several different applications to support the way it delivers services. But because those applications are configured to support those services, that in turn tends to reinforce siloed ways of working. Councils have to want to break free.
The final hurdle concerns co-ordination. Digital enthusiasts are passionate about what they do. But that volunteering ethos only goes so far, and there is a need for digital best practice to be developed and shared. Finding the best mechanism to achieve this remains an issue - as does paying for it.
Alan Mo is research director at Kable.